Reading Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins is like having a long gossip with your nosy cousin. Get some coffee and some cheesecake, pull up a chair, and settle in. You'll hear about everyone in the Middlestein family (Edie and Richard, their adult children and their grandchildren), but mostly you will hear about Edie, Edie and her weight, Edie and her secret eating, Edie and her diabetes, Edie and Richard's impending divorce. You will feel both happy and sad as you catch up with the Middlesteins, but you will also be secretly relieved that you are not that close to them.
Edie Middlestein is at the center of this story, and her battles with her weight form a framework on which Attenberg hangs the rest of the tale. She hops around in time as she tells Edie's story, using Edie's varying mass as signposts. Overweight as a child, Edie sees food as love, hand-delivered by her doting mother. As a young woman Edie reduces to a fashionable weight, but food becomes the enemy. And by middle age it's a weapon.
Attenberg carefully dissects the cultural implications of food in a 20th century American immigrant family but never overdoes it. And she uses humor and wry observations to show that everyone is obsessed with something. Edie's children Benny and Robin abuse marijuana and alcohol, and her controlling daughter-in-law (perhaps in response to Edie's ballooning weight) forces her family to live on raw vegetables and tofu. The scenes of her husband and children's reactions to this are some of the funniest in the book.
Indeed, the humor here kind of creeps up on you. I wasn't expecting to laugh out loud but I did, often. I wasn't laughing at the Middlesteins; Attenberg never demeans her characters by making them the butt of jokes. It's life that makes you laugh -- that is, unless it makes you cry.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.